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What is the United States Supreme Court?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

The United States Supreme Court (USSC), sometimes seen written as the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), is the highest court in the United States of America, having jurisdiction over all other courts and serving as the court of last resort and final appeal. Along with the President, Senate, and Congress, the groundwork to establish the Supreme Court was established in the Constitution. It serves as the head of the Judicial Branch of the United States Government, and is an important arbiter in cases which challenge United States laws and verdicts reached in lower courts.

The role of the Supreme Court includes interpreting and defending the United States Constitution. As part of this role, the Supreme Court justices hear challenges to laws passed by the Federal Government. If the justices determine that a law is unconstitutional, they strike it down. Likewise, in cases which have undergone multiple appeals, the Supreme Court offers the final opportunity to appeal a verdict which is felt to be unfair by some of the parties involved. The word of the Supreme Court is final.

A panel of nine justices, sit on the Supreme Court. The Chief Justice of the United States is considered to the be the most senior, and the others are classified as Associate Justices. The President of the United States appoints a justice to the Supreme Court, and the Senate must confirm the appointment. If the Senate does not approve of the choice, it can request that the President approve someone else for the position.

Once appointed, a justice serves for life, or until he or she retires or is impeached. Some justices have died in office, while many have chosen to retire to spend their last years with friends and family. More rarely, the conduct of a justice is deemed inappropriate, and he or she will be impeached. Because the positions are for life, presidents jockey for the ability to appoint a justice, thus leaving lasting impact on the political landscape of the United States.

Some landmark cases decided by the Supreme Court include Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka, a ruling in 1954 which paved the way to the desegregation of schools, and Roe vs Wade in 1973, the case which protected a woman's right to choose under the right to privacy. Many decisions are considered highly controversial, as they deal with politically and emotionally charged issues.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By rjohnson — On Feb 11, 2008

Contrary to what you might think, the Chief Justice position isn't given to the Supreme Court Justice who has had put in the most years. It's one of the nine seats. So when the Chief Justice leaves, the guy or gal that replaces him or her becomes the new Chief Justice, even though the newbie has the least tenure!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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